An Intellectual Treasure Hunt

I lucked out the first time I was assigned to teach Social Studies 9. For a bilingual Canadian Europhile, the course is pretty much brain porn. You know those things that you wish you were part of, that you can actually feel a physical pull toward, but you have no choice but to experience second hand? That’s what this course is for me.

In Socials 9, I get to teach about democracy. I get to teach about the French Revolution and the American Revolution, including how they’re related. I get to see the “a-ha!” expressions when the kids finally learn why we have two languages in Canada, and listen to their murmurs when they find out that our country is pretty much here because of a European fashion that looks hilarious today – not to mention that it sounds like I’m saying dirty things with a totally straight face when I talk about it. They love that.

But really, I can’t avoid saying “beaver fur” when teaching the history of European colonization in Canada.

Alright, I could probably find a euphemism for a euphemism, but I need to entertain myself too. And pretending that I have no idea what’s funny is pretty entertaining.

In short, Social Studies 9 is my favourite course to teach. Hands not just down, but flat out buried in the earth. I love it that much.

But the course isn’t all war, revolution, and (what I suspect is) Canadian specific double-entendre. There are also some “boring” elements, according to the kids, anyway.  These less exciting parts are largely to do with geographic regions of North America and anthropological studies of the people who lived there before European colonization. It does sound boring when it’s put it like that, I admit.

Basically, the course asks that the students study First Nations cultures in relation to the land on which they lived. It’s pretty finicky stuff, and I learned very quickly that it’s not the sort of thing I could just say “Hey, this is neat! Go look at how the people are related to their land, then we’ll talk about it,” because the kids didn’t really get it.

It involves some pretty intense critical thinking to take two seemingly unrelated things (people and a continent) and explain how one is influenced by the other. The students needed to be guided through matching the causes (the land) and the effects (the lives). They needed direction. And I needed to give it.

But this is the era of “student-centred” learning. Giving them the answers and telling them to memorize wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t get to act as a tour guide, loading them onto the classroom equivalent of a gaudy bus and narrating an oversimplified monologue of what they were seeing. I needed to create a treasure hunt. To give cryptic clues that led to the bounty they were seeking – understanding.

Or at least the ability to show enough understanding to get a passing grade on their assignments. Let’s be honest here.

There’s no faking your way through running an intellectual scavenger hunt. That kind of meant that I needed to understand the people-dirt relationship. Big time. So I learned basic anthropology. I learned the meaning and significance of multiple anthropological terms, how they applied to First Nations life pre-European contact, and what current examples I could give to help my students understand the concepts.

I had to be ready to ask questions that would lead them in the right direction, and answer questions when they were stuck.

So I was.

And I apparently still am, even though I haven’t had the chance to teach Socials 9 in a couple of years.

Because I taught this course, because I’m so passionate about it and wanted my students to learn so badly, the 400 level Sociology course that I’ve just started makes that much more sense.

Yes, teaching Social Studies 9 has directly impacted my ability to make sense of over-written, archaically worded, senior level university readings. Because, years ago, I wanted my students to learn.

The course that I’m taking is one of many meant to broaden my knowledge, to make me a more effective teacher by increasing the things that I know.

But this is what I know: it’s being an effective teacher that makes me smarter. And by being smarter I’m a more effective teacher. It’s a cycle that my students and I share, learning from and teaching one another, because of one another.

Maybe one day they’ll teach me a way to repeatedly say “beaver fur” that won’t result in double takes and “did I hear that right?” whispers. Though I half hope that they don’t. At least I have all of their attention on fur trade days.